Google manager Isa Sonnenfeld: role models help with decisions

Jennifer Fey

SAP recently said goodbye to the first female CEO, Jennifer Morgan.

Isa Sonnenfeld, head of the Google News Lab for the DACH region, believes that this will lose a role model for young women or women in management positions.

Five years ago, she co-founded the Role Models podcast to make female role models more visible. They all use their knowledge and experience to support and empower other women.

Isabelle Sonnenfeld is head of the Google News Lab in the DACH region and co-founder of “Role Models”. In the series of events and the associated podcast, women – female role models – talk about their personal experiences or professional challenges. There are now five role models. In an interview, Isabelle Sonnenfeld told what all these role models have in common – and why they are so important.

Together with David Noël you have been responsible for the “Role Models” event series since 2015 and the podcast from 2017 onwards. They interview women who have gone through a remarkable life. Has your definition of a role model changed since then?

I think everyone has a personal definition of the term role model. This can be on a private level, in a professional environment or in a social context. Interestingly, many women whom we asked for an interview did not see themselves as role models; they often only understood that they had a role model function when we talked to us or other guests from the audience at live events.

Inspire role models, they can be a catalyst for your own actions. But: They should – and this may have changed in recent years – not be confused with heroes. It is people who share their personal stories with us who can help us find a direction in our decisions. But ultimately everyone has to make their own decisions in personal situations.

What is a role model?

For me, role models combine four characteristics. For one thing, they are brave to go their own way and take a risk. You have a clear vision of changing the status quo in whatever form. Second, they have a sense of equality. That drives them. Also beyond the gender issue. And finally: They share their experiences, they empower other women, but also men. I think that is one of the most important qualities of all the women we interviewed.

A crisis must first occur before certain women are perceived as role models

Do you currently have role models?

Women who are single parents, who have to get work and childcare under one roof. For me these are currently role models. You are currently in a difficult situation and have to deal with it every day. Women who are currently maintaining our health system, who have never received recognition in recent years and are suddenly applauded, although it does not help them much. Instead, a more equitable remuneration for their work would be more appropriate. Read Too

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Or women entrepreneurs who are trying to transform their company very creatively despite the crisis. Or artists who are no longer commissioned, who can no longer give concerts on stage and who redefine the way they deal with their audience.

This means that a crisis must first occur before certain women are perceived as role models?

Unfortunately yes. It shows us that we have missed in recent years to give these women and their work the necessary attention and admiration. It is sad that suddenly the teachers, the nurses, the doctors, the nurses are talked about as if they were heroines. They are because they keep our system running. The clapping dies away quickly, so the crisis must lead to these women being paid better in the long term.

The Corona period thus draws attention to “new” role models, while other role models are lost: Jennifer Morgan is now the first female CEO in a global DAX company. How do you rate that?

I do not know the exact circumstances, but I would think that Jennifer Morgan was certainly a role model for young women or women in management positions. The current case shows – even though there may now be more female management positions in the top management – the only female CEO in a DAX company is now gone again. So it’s not that easy and we still have a lot to do.

If young women have no female role models in their jobs, the orientation is missing

Is a female CEO even sufficient for something to change permanently at the top of the company?

A woman is not enough to change the economy. But the SAP dual leadership, at least as far as the genders were concerned, could have been a model for the fact that various teams can be very successful. Read Too

Jennifer Morgan was the first woman to head a Dax company. Now she is leaving SAP after only 6 months – that raises questions

You started out as the first Twitter employee on the German market – at the time, they say, there were very few female role models for you. What happens when young women have no female role models in their jobs?

Orientation is missing. Female role models help because women can identify with their situation and life circumstances much more easily than with male colleagues. I am very young – at 26 years old – in a responsible position on Twitter. On the one hand, I exchanged a lot with my friends back then. On the other hand, I didn’t have that many women around me, but for example in the USA, and I asked them a lot of questions.

For example?
How do you deal with difficult situations, how do you deal with difficult decisions, who are your sparring partners to exchange ideas? I tried to understand how they prevail in an entrepreneurial context and how they go their way. Asking questions is extremely important when trying to steer your compass in the right direction. By the way, that was one of the reasons why we founded “Role Models”: We wanted to continue asking questions.

Was there a specific female role model that decisively influenced you on Twitter?

Katie Stanton was on Twitter. She was Vice President for Global Media Partnerships. And hired me too. Katie has helped me in two ways: How can we build Twitter in Germany, what should we focus on? But also on the question of how I should appear and present something so that I am taken seriously, for example, when talking to many men. Because back then – more than today – both the media industry and politics were even more male-dominated. Now at Google I have a very large network of women with whom I exchange ideas, we support and encourage one another.

You need courage to change things, to do things differently, to ask questions

Can you still remember a tip?

A tip that I pass on again and again: You know what you are talking about and you know what you can do, because that is your expertise. This feeling should be taken into every appointment or conversation. It helps to appear confident and present what you want to convey. Even if the other person gives me the feeling that I am too inexperienced, too young or out of place.

There are now 46 episodes of the Role Model podcast. Was there a commonality among all the “exemplary” women?

There is a lot that connects these women: But what I find is that all women, regardless of the environment in which they work, always speak of the fact that one needs courage. Courage to change things, to do things differently. It takes courage to ask questions. And the second is: They all use their position to share their knowledge and experience, to support and empower others. Some call it “female empowerment”, I don’t really like this term anymore because it has become a buzzword by now.

How do I get brave as a woman?

You should take the plunge into cold water and not stick to perfectionist ideas. Rather ask yourself: what’s the worst thing that can happen? And if the worst thing that can happen is not that bad, then you should take the step. No matter in what context. Of course, luck is also required. And a good network to build on. Supporters who help you along the way. Because from my personal experience, I know that you can do many things on your own, but you definitely cannot make big changes on your own. And here we come back to Jennifer Morgan: One woman alone is not enough to make the German economy more feminine.

In one episode you said that it’s not about the personal history of women, but their personal stories. They would show how difficult some situations are. Do you have any examples?

We had a conversation with Kristina Lunz, founder and director of the Center for Feminist Foreign Policy in Germany. She grew up in a very small village and was the first in her family to study. Added to this: she received a scholarship in Oxford. She said how difficult it was for her to deal with this pressure to be the first to study, always feeling out of place in Oxford. In the end, she totally inspired this time because she realized that she can do it all and that she is exactly in the right place because she is no different from everyone else.

Another example is Verena Pausder, who set up the digital workshops for the toy manufacturer HABA. In between she was a single parent, had to move to a new city and start from scratch again. Last year she decided to step down from her job at HABA and do something else for a year.

Each of these stories shows: Especially in such intimate conversation situations, many women dare to tell of situations in which they felt vulnerable. But from which they then also draw a lot of strength. That gives courage. Read Too

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